The next time you see Star Wars, watch for the scene when a Death Star stormtrooper falls into a chasm before Luke and Leia swing across it. That stormtrooper’s scream is more than 50 years old — and a time-honored in-joke among Hollywood sound designers.
The “Wilhelm scream” was originally recorded for the feature Distant Drums in 1951. From there it went into the studio’s sound effects library, where it was rediscovered in 1977 by Star Wars sound editor Ben Burtt. Burtt adopted it as his personal signature, and he enlisted a group of like-minded Hollywood sound-effects people to keep it alive.
You can hear the scream in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Beauty and the Beast, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Spider-Man … more than 100 features, including this summer’s Revenge of the Sith.
It’s called the “Wilhelm scream” because that’s the name of the original screamer, a man who’s dragged underwater by an alligator in Distant Drums. Remember that when Buzz Lightyear is knocked out of the bedroom window in Toy Story — it’s the same sound.